On the day of Vithea Yung’s launch from jail, tearful family and friends showered him with hugs, flowers and frosted purple velvet cupcakes. His 2-year-old niece Rhéma, whom he’s solely seen as soon as in particular person via a jail partition, pecked him on the cheek.
“That is the primary time,” marveled Yung, who has been incarcerated since he was 16. He’s now 43. “I have never hugged or given her a kiss since she was born.”
Neither Yung nor his family members might have dared think about Thursday’s reunion simply months in the past. Like many different Cambodian refugees who arrived within the 1980’s, his dad and mom didn’t absolutely perceive naturalization or its protections, and Yung entered jail with out citizenship. Yung feared that the state’s corrections division would switch him upon launch to immigration authorities, because it has with tens of 1000’s of different non-citizens earlier than him.
His household noticed deportation to Cambodia as a loss of life sentence as a result of Yung has been paralyzed for the final a number of years, the results of a spinal wire harm throughout a jail softball sport that has left him unable to stroll or feed himself. They puzzled how he might survive in a rustic he hasn’t seen since he was a toddler.
However then final November, a parole board beneficial Yung’s launch after 25 years in jail. Days later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement lifted a “detainer” on Yung, stating his case didn’t meet its “enforcement priorities.” In different phrases, ICE brokers wouldn’t attempt to take Yung into custody.
As a result of ICE didn’t clarify itself — nor reveal its choice till final month — Yung’s legal professional can solely surmise that his shopper’s dire well being was a number one issue. Whereas Yung’s case could have extenuating circumstances, Anoop Prasad of the Asian Regulation Caucus in San Francisco stated he shouldn’t be the exception.
“It may be the norm that persons are allowed after many years of incarceration to lastly come house to their households and for it to be a joyful day, not a day of extra incarceration and separation,” Prasad stated.
A invoice pending earlier than the state Legislature known as the VISION Act would cease federal authorities from deciding the destiny of those immigrants by barring most state prison-to-ICE transfers.
“What we wish for everyone in Vithea’s state of affairs [is] like anyone else who has performed their time — to actually step out of that jail gate by themselves, however with out being escorted by ICE brokers,” stated Ny Nourn, co-director of the Asian Prisoner Help Committee.
Nourn stated she is aware of of solely of a handful of circumstances the place ICE didn’t decide up immigrants after they have been launched, or stated brokers would arrest a person however ended up not displaying up.
Immigrant rights activists within the Southeast Asian neighborhood have lengthy argued that non-citizens are double-punished for crimes typically dedicated after they have been teenagers and younger males from refugee households residing in impoverished, harmful neighborhoods, the place becoming a member of gangs supplied safety and acceptance.
Yung was sentenced 35 years to life for fatally taking pictures a person from a rival gang. He stated he fired photographs after being cornered by a number of members of that gang, which had been answerable for the taking pictures loss of life of an in depth good friend days earlier.
Due to his age on the time of the crime, Yung was eligible for parole earlier and efficiently introduced his case for early launch, sharing the great opinions he’s acquired working jobs resembling a trainer’s aide and collaborating in self-help lessons and restorative justice applications.
However with parole got here the fear that he would go straight from state jail to an immigration holding cell.
“You do not know which path you are going, you understand?” Yung stated Thursday. “You do not know if you happen to’re going left or proper or if you happen to’re going straight house.”
Even the morning of his launch, Yung felt pangs of doubt. The ambulance switch Yung wanted nonetheless hadn’t proven as much as the place he’d been residing for the final a number of months — a safe unit in a Sylmar nursing facility that’s beneath contract with the state jail system. He had been moved there after residing for years within the Sacramento-area.
An hour ticked by, then two. Yung stated to himself “Okay, issues aren’t including up.”
In the meantime, at Yung’s vacation spot, the Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Middle in Downey the place he was presupposed to spend his first couple weeks out of jail custody, a dozen of his household, buddies and supporters from the ICE Out Of CA coalition sought shade as they waited for hours, checking the time on their telephones and leaping to consideration each time an ambulance approached.
Yung’s mom, Sinun Hengsoka Snun, dabbed at her eyes, her yellow surgical masks absorbing the tears she missed. She hadn’t seen her son in particular person for 12 years; the 2 of them received too emotional every time she visited. She resorted to creating his favourite Cambodian dishes to be delivered by his siblings, like samlor machu kroeung, a savory soup flavored with lemongrass and tamarind.
“He informed me, Mommy, are you able to cook dinner for me — this one, that one?” she recounted.
Lastly, shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, a white ambulance with a purple stripe throughout its center, rounded the nook. When the doorways opened to disclose Yung on a stretcher, his mom began crying, as did he. One among his sisters Terry Honoré began shrieking with pleasure.
“Pinch me,” she stated, “then it’s actual.”
As household squeezed Yung tight, and others known as in by Facetime, Ny Nourn stood again, smiling. She had been advocating for Yung these previous few months with different immigration rights advocates and had flown down from Oakland for Yung’s launch. She was delighted that his expertise had been so completely different from hers.
Yearly, California prisons hand over 100’s of non-citizens upon their launch to ICE.
Immediately, tears as Vithea Yung is ready to unite w/his mother after serving 25+ years, w/o concern of being taken to an ICE holding cell after.
Nourn, too, was not a citizen when she was sentenced to jail. On her launch day, she and 4 different ladies have been taken to a cell to attend for members of the family to select them up. Nourn had not heard a method or one other whether or not she was going to be transferred to ICE and had organized for a experience, however then a jail guard informed her she could be.
“My entire coronary heart, my face simply actually dropped, you understand?” Nourn stated. “After which I additionally felt very embarrassed too, as a result of the ladies, they’re all pleased and excited, like celebrating, after which they heard the dialog between me and the guards. And once I walked again in they stated, ‘I am so sorry.’”
Nourn could be detained six months by ICE earlier than she was launched on bond and capable of proceed her struggle towards being deported to her native Cambodia. She was granted a pardon in June of 2020, which dropped her removing order.
Phal Sok of the Youth Justice Coalition, who was additionally current to greet Yung, stated his case will supply hope to the a whole lot of immigrants who’re transferred by the state to ICE annually. However Sok stated the general public cannot go away issues to the whim of ICE, and should nonetheless apply stress in particular person circumstances.
“Of us have to actually press and make some noise,” Sok stated. “To ensure that us to progress as a society, we now have to consider individuals as a complete, and never simply convictions.”
As Yung posed for images with buddies and supporters, Honoré was masterminding her brother’s future. She wanted to assist him verify in together with his parole officer and he or she needed to discover him housing, hopefully close to Lengthy Seashore, the place he had grown up, however hire was so excessive. Down the street, she wished to assist him search a pardon from the governor, which might be the one method to defend him from future deportation.
“That is at all times been a priority for me,” she stated. “You recognize, with God’s assist, perhaps he can achieve a bit bit extra mobility however then they’ll really feel like, Oh, properly, he is stronger.’”
Yung wasn’t considering as far forward as his sister. After a whole maturity spent in jail, he was wanting ahead to being out on this planet, seeing what he might bodily do by himself and having his personal place.
“Wherever I can lay my head, so long as there is a roof over it, that’s good,” Yung stated.
Have a query about Southern California’s Asian American communities?
Josie Huang studies on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impression of these rising communities in Southern California.